Will John Tory be Toronto’s anti-poverty mayor?

Posted on September 2, 2015 in Social Security Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – For the first time, Toronto has a robust anti-poverty strategy. All we need now is for city council to step up and fund it.
Sep 01 2015.   By: Sean Meagher and Lee Soda

With Toronto under the international spotlight, what kind of a city do we want to present to the world? Still riding the energy of the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, Toronto is abuzz with the prospect of bidding for other, bigger international events, such as the Expo 2020 and the 2024 Summer Olympics. Presumably, if those happened, we would want to showcase the Toronto that frequently makes it onto the most-livable-cities-in-the-world lists; a city of social harmony and economic opportunity, with a healthy and thriving population. Indeed, that has been Toronto’s “headline” for some time. But there’s another story.

The gap between the rich and the poor is growing. Social harmony, prosperity, equity, good health and well-being are a reality for only a sporadic scattering of Toronto’s neighbourhoods and the people who live in them. The reality for many other residents across the city is that they are struggling to pay the bills and eat nutritious food, as they barely scrape by on inadequate wages at precarious jobs, are effectively stranded by inadequate transit, cannot afford child care, and have trouble accessing social services and recreation.

Last year, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto issued a report documenting alarming levels of child poverty across the city — nearly 50 per cent in some neighbourhoods. The problem is compounded for children living in lone-parent households headed by women, who themselves are all too often the face of poverty in our city. Women and other equity-seeking groups — including racialized communities, newcomers, people living with disabilities, people of marginalized genders and sexualities, Aboriginal people, and seniors — are disproportionately represented in populations facing poverty.

In fact, a recent report showed that Toronto is becoming the income inequality capital of Canada because of a widening gap amongst neighbourhoods. And, most recently, analyses by the University of Toronto and CAMH showed that when families cannot access quality food, the associated costs to the health care system are twice as much as they would be if they were able to eat well.

But there is hope. And it comes in the form of the Mayor John Tory and Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell’s leadership so far in the fight against poverty. City staff have done a commendable job of leading community consultations and drafting Toronto’s first ever poverty-reduction strategy. The plan passed with overwhelming support at council. Now, it’s time to put the report into action.

It will not be easy. The interim report itself has more than 70 recommendations under five categories. It calls for substantial action on affordable housing, and significant improvements in transit. It presses the city to be a leader in creating stable, quality jobs with living wages. It addresses issues on access to child care, recreation, and develops new ways to tackle food security.

How it does this is as important as what it does. The strategy commits the city to developing programs in partnership with the people they serve. It calls for clear goals and benchmarks to show if we’re making progress, or continuing to fall behind. And it makes sure that everyone — the public, private and non-profit sectors — plays a role.

But none of this will matter unless the plan is backed up by sustainable action to make a down payment against poverty. That is where Mayor John Tory’s leadership can play a crucial role. He publicly signed a pledge during the mayoral campaign to implement a robust strategy. He has guided council into adopting the interim report and has committed to championing the strategy to the business community. Now, all eyes are on him and his key allies in council to seal the deal.

Every political leader develops a brand as they progress through their term in office. A strong, sustainable poverty-reduction strategy provides Tory an opportunity to define himself and his mandate — it’s his chance to become the mayor who transformed Canada’s biggest municipality into a city where everyone has an equal chance to thrive, live well and feel secure financially. Now, who wouldn’t want that?

Sean Meagher is executive director of Social Planning Toronto and Lee Soda is director of the Agincourt Community Services Association.

On behalf of Committment2Community, a coalition of 75 community groups from across Toronto, advocating for a strong Poverty Reduction Strategy in Toronto. See updates and photos, @ReducePovertyTO

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